[21 October 2001]
Two years ago The Dismemberment Plan were independent rock’s Next Big Thing. After being dropped by Interscope, they released Emergency and I on DeSoto—a record that used a brilliant blend of Talking Heads, Fugazi and disco to inspire cement-footed hipsters to dance, turning the Dismemberment Plan into an underground sensation and landing them the opening spot on Pearl Jam’s European tour.
On Emergency and I, Travis Morrison used the verses to set the scene, to lay the groundwork. The choruses explode, all of his feelings come flying/screaming/bouncing/yelping out. It was the kind of record that made you jump and yell and really mean it. It was the sound of The Dismemberment Plan finally blending the spastic shuffle beats and shiny clanging guitar riffs into their own unique vision. Over those sounds of a glorious melodic accident set to sedated dance beats, Morrison was experiencing a horrific breakup—every chorus was his personal “emergency”. Morrison had reached the point where he couldn’t walk the streets of his own town without her haunting him (“The City”), the point where an invitation to a party, anything that would help him feel needed, could save his life (“You are Invited”).
So, can a record called Change possibly be better than a record called Emergency and I? No. Someone should have woken Travis Morrison up and told him he was recording an album. For anyone who loved Emergency and I, or any of the Dismemberment Plan’s other two records, Change sounds like The Dismemberment Plan on Quaaludes. Changes finds Morrison after the emergency. Time has revived him, he’s looking back and genuinely surprised that he’s going to survive. He never sets the scene, never puts us anywhere—the record lives inside Morrison’s head, with absolutely no setting. It’s his feelings from start to finish, confused and wrapped around one another. The choruses are not explosions, but smooth, slippery slides where truths become clear. Drums and bass glide around Morrison’s songs on Changes, they rarely drive the songs, except on the album’s handful of truly dynamic tracks.
“Sentimental Man” kicks off the album on a mundane note. It’s a slow-slide of a song built around Morrison’s slippery falsetto chorus and a tired, jazzy bass line. The second track, “The Face of the Earth”, is representative of the entire album. With a tough but slimy bass backbone and a driving, uplifting sparkle of lead guitar, it instantly recalls a previous Dismemberment Plan tune (“The City”) and then fails to provide the explosion or energy of its predecessor. It is, however, one of the few songs where Morrison shows off his immensely enjoyable patented lyrical swagger. “Automatic”, an acoustic track, and “Come Home” are the first truly boring songs in The Dismemberment Plan’s four album, one EP catalog. It is painfully obvious that “Timebomb”, a long-time live favorite, was written around the time of Emergency and I. It may be the only song on the album in which Morrison doesn’t say “I guess”—he actually knows, he threatens, he lashes out. The lead guitar is menacing, building up frustration and releasing it all in the song’s final minute.
With Emergency and I, The Dismemberment Plan injected a vital shot of originality and spirit into the independent rock world. Change won’t wound the band’s reputation, but it puts them in a circling flight-pattern, with no new sounds and no creative leap forward. All the best musical moments come off as uninspired mirror images of Emergency and I. Overall, Change is to The Dismemberment Plan as Harmacy is to Sebadoh, as Here’s Where the Strings Come In is to Superchunk, as Recovering the Satellites is to Counting Crows, as Black Love is to the Afghan Whigs etc., etc…. It is the record after the trauma, the typical less dynamic follow-up to a band’s musical and emotional masterpiece. Change is a resigned record, a record of realizations. It’s an enjoyable record, a necessary record in the evolution of the band, but far from an essential listen.